Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski addresses supporters at Saturday's tiki-torch march in Edmonton. Image: Artur Pawlowski/Facebook

Jason Kenney didn’t actually say there were very fine people at Saturday’s tiki-torch parade at the Alberta legislature, but his half-hearted condemnation of the racist overtones of the tawdry “one-voice walk for freedom” surely came from the same place.

It took Alberta’s United Conservative Party premier almost 48 hours to condemn the march, which was supposedly organized to protest Alberta’s already-too-weak restrictions on commercial and social activities that can spread COVID-19 but quickly took on an uglier tone.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson did not hesitate. He issued a statement hours before the marchers assembled, emphasizing that “COVID-19 is not a joke or a hoax. We are in the middle of a global public health crisis. Wearing a mask and following other public health measures keeps people safe and saves lives.”

“I’ve also been made aware that some people associated with this rally, which is being led by organizers from outside Edmonton, may be associated with known hate groups,” Mayor Iveson pointedly added. “Edmonton unequivocally condemns racism, misogyny and other forms of hate — such speech is not welcome in our community.”

“This wasn’t about COVID-19,” NDP opposition leader and former premier Rachel Notley said on Twitter afterward. “Demonstrations of white nationalism are a real threat and we must confront that threat.”

After that, there was silence from the UCP.

Never mind that while the tiki torch crowd of about 300 people marched to the legislature, many were recorded spewing abuse at reporters and counter-protesters, not to mention scuffling with police. One man was arrested and four officers were assaulted during the melee, Edmonton Police said.

Eventually, at a virtual news conference yesterday about how hockey teams would be allowed to raise money by holding 50-50 draws, the UCP’s multiculturalism minister responded for the government.

“Peaceful protest is a very, very important part of democracy,” Leela Aheer said, carefully sticking to the government’s talking point. ‘However, racism, white supremacy — any of that — is absolutely, imperatively, absolutely and unequivocally unacceptable at any time.”

It was another six hours before Kenney got around to saying anything, with a waffling statement attached to a tweet. Nothing was posted on Facebook, where the basest members of Kenney’s base hang out.

“Albertans value the constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and assembly,” he began — at least, presumably, when those rights aren’t being exercised by people the premier doesn’t agree with anywhere near critical infrastructure.

He acknowledged that some of the participants in the rally are associated with known racist groups, mildly condemned division and hate, and concluded: “Like any large public protest, there was likely a range of perspectives and motivations amongst those who attended.

“There is no doubt that some people came just to register their opposition to public health measures, which is their democratic right,” his statement rambled on. “But these people also have a responsibility to disassociate themselves from extremists who peddle hatred and division, and who played a role in this event.”

This mealy-mouthed commentary wasn’t quite a full-throated Trumpian defence of the “very fine people” among the not-so-fine folk in attendance, but surely boils down to the same sentiment.

Could we expect an unequivocal condemnation of outright racism by our premier? Apparently not. An official statement from his government? Also no.

But this is what happens when a political party gets too close to its extremist fringe. Politicians like Kenney may start out thinking they own the fringe, but as we have seen frequently of late, sometimes the fringe ends up owning them.

That’s why folk wisdom advises that he who sups with the Devil should bring a long spoon.

This isn’t a new problem for Alberta Conservatives, of course.

Readers will remember that in 2018, members of the Soldiers of Odin — one of the groups said to be at Saturday’s protest — showed up in full regalia at a UCP campaign pub night in Edmonton. Instead of being shown the door, they were invited to share beer and chicken wings and pose for photos with the candidate. (The same candidate is now the chief of staff to the minister of education.)

And way back in 2014, Ric McIver — now Kenney’s transportation minister but then campaigning for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party — got in hot water for joining anti-gay Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski on the serial noise-bylaw violator’s “March for Jesus” though the streets of Calgary.

That’s the same Artur Pawlowski, of course, who was one of the organizers of Saturday’s tiki-torch parade in Edmonton.

It was Pastor Pawlowski’s brother, Dawid Pawlowski, who was arrested after the scuffle with police and later released without charges.

Maybe Kenney should speak with his transportation minister about the risks of being too closely identified with those fellows.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Artur Pawlowski/Facebook

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...